I, Tonya (2018)

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Hitting the ice rink like a jacked up Torvill and Dean, is an award contending biographical yarn like hardly any other. It’s at once frenzied and focused and almost consistently splitting to burst with on point black comedy.

In the 1970’s, talented 4 year old ice skater Tonya Harding is pressured to keep training by her abusive and chain-smoking mother LaVona (Allison Janney). By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) reaches 15 she can be just as abrasive but falls for rink-side spectator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Through years of abuse, practice and unfair judgement, Harding gets caught up in an Olympic scandal come 1994.

Pacing wise, this film shuttles along like a bobsleigh at breakneck speeds, it’s a fully riveting story from start to finish and I must say I was on board throughout. The characters, based on real people are fully realised and interact wonderfully, Craig Gillespie directs with an eye to tell this story like the funny yet darkly tragic events were and the rags to semi-riches and back again narrative is as finessed as 1984’s Bolero routine.

Honestly, ice dancing has never looked and felt more intense, engaging and visceral as it does here. These quite spectacular and captivating sequences of figure skating dances are wonderfully incorporated into a script by Steven Rogers that sizzles with humour and ultimately real heartbreak. The final stages of the film, led by Margot Robbie are written and performed masterfully and make the fun time, plus often brutal moments fade away as we see just how important the world of skating is to the titular figure. It’s a narrative of prominence and buffoonery, domestic violence and doggedness shown in such a clever and engrossing way that exceeded my expectations.

The Oscar nomination for Best Editing is deserved, ‘Baby Driver’ may excel with it’s editing in terms of car chases and sound styling cuts but ‘I, Tonya’ is edited greatly by Tatiana S. Riegel, who slices through the film like a skate blade would. It all helps keep up the exciting speed, blend the routines in seamlessly and showcase the second half madness of the incident as something you may expect to see in a slick gangster movie, if the gangsters were inept.

Seeing characters account their views of the matter in an interview style is a perfect method of storytelling that bolsters the unreliable narrative from pretty much everyone. You never really know who could be lying, exaggerating or speaking truths and that’s what makes this such a ride to watch. The breaking of the fourth wall is utilised also and sometimes it is a cliche but it’s used to sparingly good effect to heighten the idiot humour or further the character driven explanation to us.

Robbie may not win the gold medal of an Academy Award but if she did, it definitely would be warranted. It’s evident Tonya craves adoration at first from her mum and then from the public and the Australian actor sells that aspect well. This is her finest performance in ever as she brings the Oregon born Tonya Harding to explosive life. There’s crazy eye, comic delivery, heartfelt softness and broken vulnerability all in the mix of her committed turn as the less than picturesque all American figure skater. Janney swears like a sailor and steals lots of the scenes as the overbearing strict maternal type but there’s times you can see kindness behind the cigarette smoke before she comes out with a cracker once again. Sebastian Stan is alright in his role as Harding’s husband but isn’t anything special, in fact his friend Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser is a bonafide boob of epic proportions, providing ample amount of humour as a moronic slob thinking himself some clever agent type.

I haven’t even mentioned how brilliant the soundtrack and score are either, suffice to say I really really liked this film. I thought it’d be good but it’s soared past that into greatness, thanks to Margot, Allison, sublime directing and editing and a story device that bounces around with the notion of Tonya Harding as a heroine or not.

8.5/10

 

 

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Darkest Hour (2018)

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All hail Gary Oldman, he may not be playing a king in this war drama, but his turn as Winston Churchill is unarguably incredible and deserving of golden awards and a crown.

During May of 1940, Germany are on the attack and reaching the worrying position of heading onto the shores of Britain. People and politicians alike have demanded the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and his position becomes available for Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). At such a crucial point in politics and the war effort, it becomes a huge task for him to stick true to his grit and dogged determination to fight on.

Joe Wright captures this massively important passage of time with such stunning detail. There are plenty of tracking shots that sweep through frames of locations heaving with extras and ornate rooms. Birds eye shots are seen on numerous occasions which truly help the audience realise the scale of the scene; as most of these are overhead shots from the men out on the fields fighting for their lives. This is a film that settles you in and makes the ticking over of these integral dates in May feel as significant as they clearly were.

Cinematography and music combine in this biographical war movie in such a beautiful fashion. There’s a captivating sense of weight to what is seen and heard which perfectly reflects the dramatic choices on Churchill’s shoulders. Sadly, the narrative itself isn’t as in keeping with the captivating score and mise en scene. It’s a screenplay that mostly manages to carry the ordeal of political power at the brink of UK failure but there are times that the film chugs along, almost dragging out the days. Also some scenes/moments just screamed of being contrived for pure cinematic, awards season value. The Underground visit being something that yanked me right out of the film.

Luckily, there isn’t too much that did take me out of the movie and one aspect that really immersed me was the creative skills of the hair and make-up team who have achieved a wonderful character in turning Oldman into the well known war leader. The look is incredible and I forgot through almost the entire feature, that I was watching the actor under such inspired prosthetics.

Speaking of which, Gary Oldman is a force of acting nature as the British bulldog. The inner depths of conflict and concerns whether his decisions are the right price to pay are utterly felt in every delivery of the lines; from nuanced engaging moments between the PM and his wife to more ferocious and sometime humorous words of wisdom that roar to life thanks to the apparent effortless talents of an actor well deserving of all award talk. Kristin Scott Thomas has a serene and wonderful presence in the film. She plays Clementine or ‘Clemmie’ as Winston calls her and the scenes with her are great moments that display her emotions to how her life is but they nicely give us respites in Churchill’s usual fiery resolve and show his human side when not performing. Lily James plays secretary Elizabeth Nel and her role, though softened and there to provide easy ways to inspire Churchill when necessary, isn’t entirely bland. James gives grace and helpful assistance to Winston and the film. I must also mention the wondrous Ben Mendelsohn who plays the stammering King George VI with a gracious believable touch and his change in heart to the once disliked Churchill further gives this film the rousing applause to an iconic figure in history.

The plot may not always be a searing delight, but the spotlight on Churchill’s achievements at the crux of British ruin is an intensely detailed marvel to look at and with Oldman stepping into the shoes and hat with a cigar to hand, Winston has never looked and sounded more alive than in this mesmerising showcase.

8/10

Stronger (2017)

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Unlike the usual and therefore, cliched biographical dramas, this film based on a true story of a terrorist attack survivor is mature and involving and raw.

Costco worker and Red Sox fan Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives at home in Boston with his mum, Patty (Miranda Richardson). Desperately trying to win back his on/off girlfriend, Jeff ensures he’ll see Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) at the finish line of the Boston Marathon but he’s caught in the blast and loses both his legs. The following weeks see him try to come to terms with this tragic change in his life.

A lot of films that adapt or take from real life accounts seem to run along with over sentimentality and hope to force their audiences into gushing with sad tears, which of course works on the most part for people but I’ve always been one to find this tactic false and misleading. Gladly, this movie doesn’t push the emotional side of proceedings and lets the devastating tragedy of Jeff’s drama come across in a more genuine and bitterly angry way.

It’s in the relationship between Jeff and Erin that the film feels alive or most real. You see both sides and this film does set up the human flaws in Jeff from before and after the bombing. He’s a figure that never seems wholly scared of commitment just shies away from it, this becomes even more of a realisation once he’s reliant on his wheelchair and the help of Erin. Their journey is very much up and down and the film doesn’t gloss over the troubling but expected anger and self-hatred aspect Jeff faces, which he turn takes out on his girlfriend.

There are some well delivered scenes amongst the relationship angle of this inspirational hero narrative. The way the camera keeps his disabled legs out of focus in keeping with Jeff’s understandable decision to not look as they remove the bandages and gauze is a tough moment. A screaming match in the car may be a certain cliche but it’s a heated and close framed scene that packs a punch. In a dangerous but comedic way, Jeff and his brothers leave a bar and Jeff attempts driving back which is done in a light hearted free spirited way that works quite well.

Certain moments throughout, like the continual patriotic vibe and this hero pedestal he’s been thrown onto feel like a bit too much. The pitching at a baseball game, his flag waving and so on, he’s set up as a hero which the film at times questions how he is for just being there when a bomb went off and having his legs lost, but then at times it truly buys into this hero arc and feels like the only cliche of the movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal is sensational in this, the quite vulnerable child-like eyes he demonstrates from before attending the marathon continue throughout. There’s a crackling damaged intensity in his core that he acts with such outstanding detail. Tatiana Maslany is on par with the acting talents of Gyllenhaal, she releases hugely affecting emotion in the light of her world being turned upside down. As Erin says, Jeff isn’t the only one hurt, there’s a circle all around him of people changed by what happened. It’s not a selfish outburst and thanks to the likable and genuinely deep rooted care and heart she brings, Maslany ensures the connection between the pair is believable.

It’s not a tear-jerker and thankfully it’s not trying to be that kind of weepy picture. It may make you cry just a little but it’s a strong and inspirational film that is carried more by it’s two leads than the way the story is told.

7.5/10

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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Game, set and match! This film is an ace of a biopic and extremely relevant with the current climate of the female/male divide. High flying 60s/70s tennis star Billie Jean King and women as a gender themselves rise up and show the grass should be as green on their side of the court as the men.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a world class tennis talent but she and every other racket wielding sportswoman are subjected to taunts, digs and extremely less pay than the apparently better and more exciting male tennis players. King says no more, to important Lawn Tennis Association figure Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and starts her own tournament. This bold journey leads her agreeing to a match with former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the first Battle of the Sexes match.

The story telling is incredibly engaging and like with tennis we go back and forth between the two sides and see how this very, very different people live their lives and train for the big sporting event. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ writer Simon Beaufoy pens an assured telling of an important topic for empowerment and liberation. There are still great drop shots of comedy to be found along the way but he ensures the serious message of gender equality is at the forefront.

The way this film is delivered really works well in making you get excited for the big face off. I wasn’t expecting it to show much of any tennis playing of the match itself and thought it’d adapt Bobby and Billie’s stories leading up to this point but gladly there’s a lot of edge of the seat playing to be seen, you really see the styles of the two players come to a head and as someone who loves watching tennis, the last sequence is exhilarating, tense and beautiful all at the same time.

There is a set of interesting points with this sports story and a lot of them boil down to loves and politics. It’s not just a dramedy but a smartly told narrative that keeps a genuine interest in its subjects. On the softer side there is a forbidden fruit notion of love that ticks away, this secreted passion further adds to the dramatic relevance of the characters and their pre-match behaviours. One is a incessant gambling man-child and the other is a laser-focused achiever struggling with a new feeling in her life.

Stone serves up a careful and emotive performance as the courageous and capable Billie Jean King. You see past her period glasses and into her eyes and get an idea of the amazing and forward thinking woman she was and I’m sure still is. Carell smashes the movie in a role that continues his run of serious acting performances. It may not carry that chill of ‘Foxcatcher’ or the brains from ‘The Big Short’ but he utilises on his comedic background whilst still giving Bobby Riggs a worrying quality of chauvinistic pig-pigheadedness. Andrea Riseborough is a glowing presence in the life of King and she plays this more confident person with a free spirit in a believable and effortless manner.

It’s not a total grand slam of a bio drama as it hits the net with a couple of expected sporting drama cliches or predictable story moments, but these are mere tiny notes in a film that greatly balances pleasing humour and interesting gender politics with a leading duo of actors that are fantastic.

7.5/10

Snowden (2016)

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With a neat common theme of modern like gloss layered over this political drama it’s hard not to feel some moments are heightened for cinematic effect, but the true life and accounts its portraying are truly interesting, thrilling and I liked the film quite a lot.

After being ruled out of the U.S Army, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explores his passion for computers and joins the CIA impressing Corbin (Rhys Ifans). At the same time, Snowden is developing a connection with photographer and liberal Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). As his roles develop, Edward Snowden questions the ideas of these huge government groups and winds up releasing date about American security reviling him as the notorious whistleblower.

I do find that with these type of films, there is never a running jump as to who the director wants to place their chips with, leaving us to walk out mulling over our own thoughts. That for me is something annoying and at least here, director Oliver Stone makes it clear that he’s on Snowden’s side. Of course that gives this movie an obvious bias but he’s having the confidence to put his foot down and direct his own mind.

Edward Snowden was someone I’d always heard of, knew of the whistle blowing status and what he had done to a small degree, but this movie explores a lot more which is great. I liked what the whole feature had to say, as it doesn’t just shed light on this man and how not only his work changed his decisions and therefore life but gives us enough to make an opinion even if Stone is leaning us to the fact that what he did was a necessary thing to kick-start a change in American surveillance.

I too will stake my place and agree that what Snowden was for the benefit of a hopeful world, with big countries needing to be more open about their spying on everyday people. The opposite side is agreeable too, concerning how he definitely threatened pivotal date to possible terrorists and stole information but then this is why I liked the film because there’s a huge meaty conversation starter to be had about the actions of an ethical and technological 29 year old.

Structurally the movie is done as you’d imagine, starting at the most recent point in his timeline as he’s about to leak the information before jumping back every now and then with the the newest 2013 scenes interspersed from time to time. It’s never confusing or muddled and sometimes the scenes blend nicely together. There are some beautiful little touches, for example the kaleidoscope hotel corridor as Snowden walks along, almost a visual parallel to the different stands of his career.

What hit me most is when we watch him use a program that hops from a tracked person if interest and links him/her to contacts they have, then contacts those people have and so on and so on. That was an alarming realisation that I’d just ignorantly never thought to think about and it really demonstrates how mostly innocent people are being watched constantly. It’s all cleverly awash with a neon blue and ends on a graphic circle melding into a shot of Snowden’s eye before pulling out and seeing Edward watch that program unfold.

Gordon-Levitt is great, the change to his voice matches the sound of Snowden very well and he looks remarkably like him as the stubble appears. Woodley is radiant as the antithesis to her partner, she acts playfully but shows emotion too as his commitment to work affects their relationship. Rhys Ifans is a sort of formidable character, on the brink of villainy because of what he knows, this characteristic is illuminated further as his faces looms over Snowden on a screen through a Facetime call. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson aren’t in it too much but do enough to become believable intrepid allies to the cause and likewise Nicolas Cage has little screen-time but is a friendly if typically Cage-like role helping Edward out.

The very biased construction of the film, shining Snowden in a radiant light might be off-putting to some, but he is an icon whichever way you look at him. There’s plenty to think about after seeing this and for me that just outweighs the idealistic siding they’ve taken to their own hero.

7/10

Sully (2016)

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Soaring heights and then crashing back to Earth very quickly, is this safe biographical drama that is interesting, good but an overall un-amazing feature that feels as if it’s hovering calmly over the water never daring to pull up or take the plunge.

In early January, Captain Sully (Tom Hanks) is boarding a flight from LaGuardia in New York to Charlotte in North Carolina, but he and First Officer Jeffrey (Aaron Eckhart) literally fly into trouble as a flock of birds damage their engines. In that quickening scenario of danger Sully manages to land the plane on the Hudson but this leads to many eyes determining whether he made a bad decision.

Clint Eastwood directs this inspiring story about a brave yet everyday hero in a similarly painted-by-numbers manner that he did with ‘Jersey Boys’. It all feels like it’s conforming to a pedestrian telling of a real life event. So considering the life-threatening drama involved it is a film that never comes across as something incredible, rather you’re faced with a good but wholly simple movie.

I couldn’t say I dislike the film though, it’s made efficiently enough and captures that work-like nature of a man in crisis with ease. The differing points of view that come throughout sees the landing from both sides and builds a good narrative, but they get slightly drawn aback by two pretty pointless flashbacks that show younger Sully’s through his work progression, they hardly warrant involvement in the actual finalised release.

The words plane and disaster are ones you never want to hear spoken together, so the few times we see Sully’s nightmarish visions of a plane smashing into a NYC building conjures up jangling nerves and a 9/11 horror. Though the twinkling Christmas-esque music over the passengers being saved is cliched it does help create a miraculous aura over the triumph of many people being helped by others.

Tom Hanks is, as you’d imagine, a fine solid lead playing a capable and charmingly knowledgeable hero, on the flip-side though you know it’s Hanks all the way through and you never lose yourself into his performance enough to buy into it 100%. Aaron Eckhart gets a few good quips and does well in helpfully rooting for Sully but is mostly lost to the wayside.

‘Sully’ flies effectively yet super calmly to the screen as a biopic like nearly every other biopic that gets released during this point of the film calendar. It does the job as Sully himself did but it’s a quiet and average film.

6/10

Bleed for This (2016)

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Stepping into the ring is this boxing bio-pic that smacks with a few of the expected sporting movie cliches but thanks to a great great performance from Miles Teller, the rise to riches and fame story isn’t so tedious.

Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller) is in the junior welterweight category but doesn’t seem to have luck winning bouts. Once he teams up with former Mike Tyson coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and bumps up to junior middleweight he begins succeeding. That run comes to a tragic halt as Pazienza breaks his neck in a car crash but he doesn’t want to quit and tries fighting again.

Ben Younger directs this biographical drama with a clear understanding of crafting the journey. There’s enough time and attention given to not just the party boy character of Vinny but his family also. The moment he winds up almost paralysed is delivered well, showing what that change has on everyone. A lot of the time in fighting/boxing films, it’s the bouts themselves that run tiresome or repetitive so gladly Younger focuses more on the character development than what happens confined behind the ropes.

Of course there is still the usual boxing pitfalls of initial fights, underdog statuses and the middle plot drive where Vinny shifts a gear and becomes a big winner. Then there’s the next fall and with a devastating accident like the one we see, it’s obvious we’ll receive the protagonists gritty resolve to progress and never give up. The ending fight is predictable and lacks any inspiring gusto but it certainly hits with a good comeback end showing off the powerful mindset some people have to endure and prove people wrong.

A neat moment of editing occurs nearing the end, sharp quick sounds of punching as Vinny smacks from the past. Along with this we get fast flashes of scenes retelling his story as we come the huge step in his career where he hopes to squash fears of his injuries and triumph.

Miles Teller lands a fantastic point in his career in a role that topples his dedicated wonder in ‘Whiplash’. That drum-centric film may be better but here Teller is a muscled machine that pushes the story onward and upwards as much as he can. It’s certainly his show and he excels as Pazienza bringing sweat dripping determination to the screen. Aaron Eckhart is great also, the knowing coach is believable and he has a good connection with Teller, dancing and drink induced scenes give him fun and character. Ciaran Hinds is another engaging talent through this, the actor immerses himself brilliantly as Vinny’s father.

There’s enough in this sporting feature to keep you watching but not enough to break the mould or overly excite. The performances are strong but the film doesn’t help make me think boxing movies need to step down for a while.

6.5/10